Bernard Lewis on How the Ottomans Treated Jews

“A question of obvious importance concerns the Turkish attitude towards the Jews. How did the Turks regard their Jews? How did they see the place of Jews in the life of the Ottoman Empire? Jewish reports on Turkish behaviour and Turkish attitudes are almost uniformly favourable. Perhaps the earliest statement on this subject is the famous Edirne letter, probably written some time in the first half of the fifteenth century by a writer who describes himself as a French Jew born in Germany and settled in Edirne [in northwestern Turkey]. In this letter he invites his coreligionists to leave the torments they are enduring in Christendom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey:

 ‘I have heard the afflictions, more bitter than death, that have befallen our brethren in Germany – of the tyrannical laws, the compulsory baptisms and the banishments, which are of daily occurrence. I am told that when they flee from one place a yet harder fate befalls them in another … on all sides I learn of anguish of soul and torment of body; of daily executions levied by merciless oppressors. The clergy and the monks, false priests that they are, rise up against the unhappy people of God … for this reason they have made a law that every Jew found upon a Christian ship bound for the East shall be flung into the sea. Alas! How evil are the people of God in Germany entreated; how sad is their strength departed! They are driven hither and thither, and they are pursued even unto death … Brothers and teachers, friends and acquaintances! I, [Rabbi] Isaac Zarfati, though I spring from a French stock, yet I was born in Germany, and sat there at the feet of my esteemed teachers. I proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking, and where, if you will, all shall yet be well with you. The way to the Holy Land lies open to you through Turkey. Is it not better for you to live under Muslims than under Christians? Here every man may dwell at peace under his own vine and fig tree. Here you are allowed to wear the most precious garments. In Christendom, on the contrary, you dare not even venture to clothe your children in red or in blue, according to our taste, without exposing them to the insult of being beaten black and blue, or kicked green and red, and therefore are ye condemned to go about meanly clad in sad coloured raiment … and now, seeing all these things, O Israel, wherefore sleepest thou? Arise! And leave this accursed land forever!’

More than a century later Samuel Usque, a Portuguese Jew who wrote a famous book called The Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, expresses a similar view. Usque sets forth these consolations in two categories, the one human, the other divine. Among the human consolations the “most signal is great Turkey, a broad and spacious sea which God opened with the rod of His mercy as He opened the Red Sea at the time of the exodus … here the gates of liberty are always open for the observance of Judaism.” This must have come as a considerable surprise to a traveller from sixteenth-century Portugal.

Certainly, great numbers of Jews from Europe found a refuge from persecution in Turkey, and a few of them, in the fifteenth and still more in the sixteenth centuries, rose to greatness. Among such were the famous Dona Gracia Mendes and her nephew João Miques, better known as Don Joseph Nasi. Portuguese Marranos, they established an international banking and trading house that for a while, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, played a role of some importance in the affairs of the empire. It was thanks to the influence of such figures that the sultans were on occasion willing to extend their protection not only to Jews in their own realms, but even to their Jewish subjects and protégés abroad.  A noteworthy example was the Ancona incident of 1556. This seaport, which formed part of the states of the church, was an important centre of the eastern trade, and had attracted a number of former Marranos who now openly reverted to Judaism. Pope Paul IV, who reorganized the Inquisition and gave it a new militancy, found this intolerable. The Jews were arrested, their property seized, and their lives declared forfeit unless they repented and returned to Christianity. Only the direct intervention of Sultan Süleyman secured a reprieve – and then only for those who had come from Turkey and could thus claim Turkish protection. The remaining accused, who had never left Christendom and who refused to recant, were duly burned at the stake.”

Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam, Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 135 to 137

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